When Yoga Teachers Act Badly

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by Chelsea Roff

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Ever since evidence of John Friend’s sexual impropriety was made public earlier this year, there has been significant discussion in the yoga community about the appropriateness of sexual relationships between yoga teachers and students. One NYC-based yoga teacher went as far as to suggest that a yoga teacher sleeping with students is a form of sexual abuse.

Had the notorious “Yoga Sex Scandal” (as it was called by the New York Times) gone down six months ago, I might have jumped on the shock-and-horror bandwagon with nearly everyone else in the blogosphere. But as a new transplant to Santa Monica (a city I often refer to as 2nd chakra central), I was hardly surprised. At the very first class I took in L.A., a male teacher unexpectedly caressed—OK, more like groped— my ass in Downward Dog. There I was, minding my own ujjayi breath, when suddenly I felt a hand sliding over my spandex covered thigh.

At first I was shocked. He was supposed to be a professional, and here he was caressing my butt cheek in a public yoga class. But as he walked away, I felt my hips involuntarily sway back a little bit, almost as if silently asking for more. I felt a flutter in the pit of my stomach, my cheeks flushing red hot. My mind couldn’t believe the way my body was responding ... had I actually enjoyed that?

As class continued, I watched him meander serpent-like through the rows, stopping periodically to give a similar hands-on treatment to several other women in class. He came back to “adjust” me at least another half dozen times, each time getting a little more daring with his hands. When class ended, my jaw practically hit the ground as I watched several women kiss him on the lips on their way out. Later that night when I got home, a friend told me that he (as well as a few other teachers around town) had a reputation of engaging in sexual rendezvous with students outside of class.

For days, I couldn’t get the up-close-and-personal adjustments out of my mind. I felt conflicted, confused, even a little dirty. Part of me was appalled at myself (proud little feminist that I am!) for my reaction. Why hadn’t I said something? Why had I just let him get away with practically groping me in the middle of class?

But another part of me—and this is something I feel a bit embarrassed to admit—knew that I hadn’t spoken up because, well, because it felt good. Something in me had enjoyed the touch, relished in the intimacy of a tender caress. It had felt tantalizing, almost intoxicating to be the object of that teacher’s affection. I felt wanted, desired, and, counterintuitive as it may seem, it made me feel powerful.

And here’s why I’m saying it: I know that I wasn’t alone. None of the other dozen or so students he’d fondled or kissed after class had protested. Several friends I talked to later admitted that, despite their better judgment, they went to his class specifically for the adjustments and attention— when they were feeling lonely, insecure, even just bored. That teacher got away with groping students because the women in his class routinely let him.

I think one reason teachers like him can do this to dozens of women (and still get kisses on the way out) is that they play on a need many of us don’t want to acknowledge we have: a need to be seen, to be touched, even to feel sexually desirable. We’re willing to tolerate something blatantly inappropriate in order to satisfy our hunger for intimacy, approval, or love.

For many of us, when someone we admire or want approval from offers an affectionate hand, it’s very difficult to turn it away, even if that same hand makes us feel objectified, exploited, or just plain nasty. And at the same time, we’re afraid to speak out against what we know is wrong because we don’t want to “make a scene,” draw unwanted attention, or, even, risk losing the affection of someone that we want to like us.

In that moment, the need to be seen or liked trumps the need to feel respected.

I imagine many people might look at this situation and say, “If the women are enjoying it, what’s the problem?” Well, just because an erotic touch feels pleasurable doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.

At the very least, teachers create confusion in their students by touching in a blatantly sexual manner. And at worst, I think they can do a lot of emotional damage.

But what I think is often overlooked in situations like this (and the one involving John Friend) is that students have more agency when “abuses of power” happen than we give them credit for. By not saying something when my moral alarm bells went off, I become complacent in what would, in any other setting, have been considered sexual harassment. By remaining silent, I handed away my power; I indirectly told this teacher that what he was doing was not only OK with me, but permissible to do to any other female student who walked in the room. And that's why he does it.

In other words, we forget, or simply fail to utilize, the power we have.

Here’s what this experience has taught me (there’s always a lesson there, right?): We don’t have to compromise self-respect for intimacy or forgo our boundaries to get our needs met. As students, we're not responsible for teaching ethics to our teachers; they should have those before they ever get in front of a class. But if they don't, we are responsible, all of us, if we allow those boundaries to be blurred, no matter what the reason. Teachers are only powerful because they are made so by their followers— and if enough students walk away (as we witnessed in Anusara), there’s no longer a pedestal to stand up on.

Chelsea Roff is a writer, speaker, and the Managing Editor at Intent.com. Her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Yahoo Shine, Care2, Elephant Journal, and she has a book chapter about yoga and eating disorders coming out in the forthcoming anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, & Practice. Follow Chelsea on Twitter.